Nine red lines on a stone peel found in a South African cave is probably the earliest known drawing made by Homo Sapiens, archaeologists report Wednesday. The artifact, which scientists think is about 73,000 years old, dates from before the 30,000 years of the oldest, previously known modern human abstract drawings from Europe.
"We knew many things Homo sapiens could do, but we did not know that they could make drawings then," says Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist from the University of Bergen in Norway and lead author of the research.
The finding, which was published in nature, can provide insight into the origins of the use of symbols by humanity, which laid the foundation for language, mathematics and civilization.
The old drawing was excavated in Blombos Cave, about 200 miles east of Cape Town. Archaeological sites on the site date from 70,000 to 100,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age. In the cave, scientists have uncovered homo sapiens teeth, spearheads, bone tools, engravings and beads made from shells.
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Luca Pollarolo, a research assistant at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was busy clearing up some artefacts that had been excavated in 2011 when he encountered a small flak that was only about the size of two miniatures, which seemed to have been drawn on. The markings consisted of six straight, almost parallel lines that were crossed diagonally by three slightly curved lines.
"I think I've seen more than ten thousand artefacts in my life so far and I've never seen red stripes on a flake," said Dr. Pollarolo. "I could not believe what I had in my hands."
He contacted Dr. Henshilwood and Karen van Niekerk, also an archaeologist from the University of Bergen, and they agreed that the flake was worth further research.
They brought the artifact to France to be examined by Francesco d & # 39; Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux. There the team had to decide whether the red lines were drawn on the stone and, if they were not, what they were made of.
Using a microscope, a laser and a scanning electron microscope, they determined that the traces were on top of the rock and that they were made of red ocher, a kind of natural pigment that was often used to make prehistoric cave paintings. Old people in the Blombos cave even made ocher-colored paint 100,000 years ago.
"Then we had to decide how they made those lines?" Dr. said. van Niekerk. "Are they painted or drawn?"
They created ocher paint, then made a wooden stick in a brush and made strokes on stone flakes similar to the sample. They also made an ocher chalk and drew lines. Then they compared the paint markings and colored pencil markers with what they had seen on the artifact.
They found that the old crisscross pattern was a drawing, not a painting made with an ocher-colored chalk tip that was probably only about 1 to 3 millimeters thick.
That distinction between a painting and a drawing is important, according to Dr. Henshilwood, because the batches can dry out of ocher-colored paint. This makes it less useful than an ocher-colored chalk that is used by an old person when he or she wants to make symbols without the trouble to mix paint.
Dr. Henshilwood and his team also showed that the red lines were drawn on a smooth surface. This indicated that the flake was once part of a larger stone that the primeval people may have used to grind ocher. They also showed that the original red lines were most likely sticking out of the stone flakes before the grindstone was broken.
They can not say with certainty what the purpose of the drawing was and whether it was just doodling or that it had a greater meaning. But they have their suspicions.
"I am convinced that they are more than just random signs," said Dr. Henshilwood. "I think it is definitely a symbol and there is a message."
They also believe that the drawing was made by a member of our species, and not another hominin, because they only found that Homo sapiens stays in the cave.
The earliest examples of abstract and figurative drawing techniques before this discovery came from the Chauvet cave in France, the El Castillo cave in Spain, the Apollo 11 cave in southern Namibia and the Maros cave sites in Indonesia, some of which date from about 42,000 years ago. A recent study has also found Neanderthal paintings made from ocher in Europe that were 64,000 years old.
"Until now, we did not know that drawing was part of the old homo sapiens repertoire," said Dr. van Niekerk.
Dr. Henshilwood said that similar crisscross and fence marks were found engraved in pieces of ocher found in the cave. The latest finding, he said, provided further evidence that early people in Africa used symbols and abstract thinking in a variety of ways, including drawing, painting, engraving and jewelery making.
"The authors are right that this is as yet the earliest known intentional visual marking by Homo sapiens," said Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at Durham University in England who was not involved in the study. "The new discovery is crucial to our understanding of the rise of visual culture, as it documents the transmission of one of these visual motifs to a stone, in a deliberate action."
If the drawing was on a stone flake that was once part of sharpening stone used for making ocher, she would have liked the researchers to carry out additional experiments that replicated activities other than signs to show that the ocher markings were not unintentional. made during the milling of ocher to powder.
Dr. Errico reacted and said that grinding ocher for powder would have left large red spots on the flake, and not the very thin red lines that they see on their artifact.
While the debate remains unsettled, the researchers have given the artifact, originally called G7bCCC-L13, a new name, drawn from a much more modern symbol.
"We call it & # 39; # L13 & # 39; since we are in 2018 and everything has hashtags," said Dr. van Niekerk.
Nicholas St. Fleur is a science journalist who writes about archeology, paleontology, space and other subjects. He joined the Times in 2015. Previously he was assistant editor at The Atlantic. @scifleur • Facebook